Art is an extension of oneself, a release that travels from the mind, through the arm and out the fingertips to pour onto the canvas. After a car crash in 1979 that left New York-based artist, Howardena Pindell, with a dented skull and short-term memory loss, she began to explore her own body and identity, as well as the politically-charged environment that rejected, denied and broke her in the past, just because of her skin color. Art was a way to mend the wounds, both within and outside of herself, a way to heal. It was a way to embrace her blackness, her femininity and her capabilities. Pindell’s exhibition at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, “What Remains to be Seen,” showcases much more than just what remains, but holds entire stories deep in the threads and paint of each piece.
Her 1988 work, “Autobiography: Air (CS560),” incorporates the many parts and layers that contributed to the way Pindell saw herself and the world in a collage of words, body outlines and earth tones. This life-sized wall hanging envelops viewers in a kind of mystery with its silhouettes in moving positons and flowing placement of text like “censorship,” “deportation,” “beaten,” “killed” and “slave market.” This all rests amongst cut strips of canvas stitched back onto the back canvas material to add dimension and reflect on the “brokenness” and “mending” Pindell personally experienced as a victimized black woman, but also the victimization Americans used against Viet Cong soldiers with CS560 tear gas, for example. Interestingly, Pindell meditatively traced her own body’s silhouette onto the canvas, which shows her getting back in touch with herself and questioning why people incite hatred towards one other when everyone is just human.
Six years prior to the accident, Pindell created “Untitled,” a paper piece with thousands of glued, hole-punched circles on it, all arranged in a neat grid format. It draws back to her childhood where she recalls her father always writing numbers on graph paper and keeping records as a mathematician. For herself, this was a very tedious and repetitive task, but one that was also very therapeutic in a way. The repetition and monotony speaks to the lack of opportunities Pindell and other blacks had and the circle theme reoccurs throughout her other works too. Pindell recollects inspiration from a road trip in her youth where she noticed the red dots on dishware and flatware to mark use for African-Americans.
On the lower level of the exhibition, a film, “Free, White and 21,” by Pindell covers a wall and the sound hauntingly reverberates through the room as visitors continue to study her art. It is composed of anecdotal fragments where she remembers racist experiences in her life like when her kindergarten teacher yelled “‘I can’t stand these people,’” then began to tie Pindell down with sheets in her cot, simply because she raised her hand to go to the bathroom. In the retelling, Pindell wraps her face with gauze, highlighting the magnitude of hurt she felt by others discriminating against her true identity.
Being one of the first black curators at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City and now a painting professor at Stony Brook University in New York, Pindell continues to inspire generations of young artists and those marginalized to find value in their own identities.
(“Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen” remains on view through May 19 at the Rose Art Museum, 415 South St., Waltham, Massachusetts. For more information, https://www.brandeis.edu/rose/index.html or call (781) 736-2028.)